Thursday, August 31, 2006

Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals
(Robert Sapolsky, 224pp)
These essays, written for magazines, show Sapolsky's omnivorous interest, his light touch with funny metaphors, and his obsessive use of the term 'gazillion'. My favorite factoid came in one of the many essays that exercise the facile contrast between nature and nurture, where he quotes a Nature Neuroscience study from 2003 that swapped mice embryos, implanting those genetically prone to anxiety insto the wombs of mice with a propensity to be relaxed, and vice versa. "When the supposedly genetically hardwired 'relaxed' mice went through both featal development and early puphood with timid-strain moms, they grew up to be just as timid as any other timid strain mice." (p52) [The original study was done by Darlene Francis, and can be found here: Francis, D.D, Szegda, K., Campbell, G., Martin, W.D. and Insel, T.R. (2003) Epigenetic sources of behavioral differences in mice. Nature Neuroscience. 6 (5): 445-446.]

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Ultimate Anti-Career Guide: The inner path to finding your work in the world
(Rick Jarow, 6 cassettes)
Jarow's approach asks you to view your work life from a perspective of abundance, and see if that framing can jolt a new view of what you really want to do. He makes an inspirational exhortation to consider the question: What if they fought a war of meaningless jobs, and nobody conscripted themselves to fight? I liked this set of talks quite a lot, even though its use of a chakra-based exploration wasn't immediately congenial to my own outlook.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea
(Charles Seife, unabridged, 6 hours)
A fun if occasionally rambling tour of my hero, Zero. The early chapters highlight the Greek and Roman abhorrence of the null set, contrasted with Indian and later Arabic mathematicians' facility with handling nothing. The later chapters visit issues in Quantum Mechanics, relativity theory, and even explain how string theory resulted from the desire to get away from zero dimensional particles, by transforming them into tiny little loops.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

n+1, Number One: Negation
(Editors: Benjamin Kunkel, Keith Gessen, Mark Greif, Marco Roth)
I became aware of this literary journal after reading Indecision, and I subscribed beginning with issue 3. Not too long afterwards, they reprinted volumes 1 & 2, and after reading through this first issue, it's very clear why my dalliance with McSweeney's has ended. This journal raises sharply focused questions, and in this first volume, critiques the McSweeney's team for their regressive vision, the celebration of childhood as the supreme value, and the tendency for the graphic treatment to quote typographic twirls of the 19th century. The short fiction is interesting, especially the excerpt by Sam Lipsyte.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick
(Lawrence Sutin, 368pp)
I picked this up from City Lights bookstore at the beginning of the month, and it's been fun to chip with it each night. I am not Dick-obsessed, but the bio rewards those who like reading about a man who was utterly mad yet managed to channel his insanity in a productive manner. He grew up in Berkeley, and even tried to attend Cal (although panic attacks forced him to withdraw before the first semester ended). His only real job was in a record store off University Ave in the early 1950s, at a time when record stores were high-faluting. Once he had his first story accepted, he quit his job, and devoted the remainder of his life to earnings made as a hack writer. His method was quite distinctive: he'd sit and fantasize a story for a sustained period of time, and once the story gestated, he'd pound it out on the typewriter at 120 words per minute. Amphetamine definitely assisted, and gave him glimpses of the underworld that he drew upon in his stories. He never learned to be easy to live with, even after 5 marriages practice. He died of a series of strokes at the age of 51, just 4 months prior to the release of Blade Runner, which sparked his high reputation in Hollywood. Ridley Scott did show him the special effects, which PKD judged veridical to his vision. His obsessive fixation on religious imagery isn't too accessible to me, yet his dystopic paranoia is nearly as prophetic of the 21st century reality as Kafka's fears were of the 20th. As one example, the author's foreword (re-initiating the book first published in 1989) admits that he had doubted Dick's concept of a "news clown", but now, Jon Stewart clearly seems to be more trusted than Walter Cronkite was in the 1960s.

Here's a list of Berkeley addresses: June 1938 birthplace 560 Colusa Ave (p30); went to 4th Grade at the Hillside School; during WWII: 1212 Walnut Street, cottage in back (p35); 1944: 1711 Allston Way (p45); began working, age 15, at University Radio, on Shattuck and Center (p51); 1947 - first apt on his own: 2208 McKinley (p56); Spring 1948 (first marriage)- somewhere on Addison Way (p59); 1949: 1931 Dwight Way; May 1950 (2nd marriage): 1126 Francisco (p68); June 1964: 3919 Lyon Ave, Oakland (p134).

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

(Amior Aczel, unabridged, 6 hours)
Perfectly fine lay summary of the scientists involved in Quantum Mechanics and measurement, and the way that the Einstein Podolsky Rosen paradox turned out to be an accurate and insightful summary of how strange QM really is. In college, I was mesmerized by the mysteries of QM, and even on a trip across Europe, carried a huge book on Quantum Theory and Measurement. The whole of my understanding could've been squeezed into a thimble, and this small book reviews the basic issues, starting each chapter with an epigram by the person who is the chapter's focus, reviewing biographical details such as their favorite cheese, and then summarizing the research work they contributed.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Los Alamos From Below
(Richard Feynman, 3 CDs)
It's always interesting to hear Richard Feynman talk. Just today, I drove behind a van whose bumper sticker read "Feynman lives", although it's hard for me to guess what that means. Perhaps it's a reminder that each time someone thinks openly, with playful intensity, and unhindered by cant or intimidation, then at that moment, Feynman pops into the picture. There's a great story from Feynman's experience running a computational group of high school graduates organized into a data factory. Once Feynman took over, he insisted on telling the group what they were working on, even though the prior arrangement insisted on separating the task-performers from the logic of their work. Once the kids learned what they were trying to do, they invented more and more creative techniques that really showed Feynman new and creative ways to solve the problems much faster.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism
(Ross King, unabridged, 13 CDs/464 pp)
This history of Paris painters, from the 1860s to 1870s, covers the struggle of Edouard Manet to be recognized, as a now forgotten painter, Meissonier, was celebrated by the entire establishment. Manet only became recognized after his death due to the gangrene following the amputation of his syphilitic leg. Today, of course, Meissonier is forgotten, in spite of the esteem in which he was held by such tasteful arbiters as the Parisian critic responsible for the rediscovery of Vermeer and the young Henry James. I appreciated learning that Manet initially hated Monet for sharing a too-similar name, but a major limitation of the history here is that the fixation on Meissonier fails to explain the intentions motivating the impressionists, and presents the tale more as a historical smackdown. This book cannot possibly stand in audio alone, since it's essential to look at paintings throughout as a guide. Even in the hardback, the reproductions aren't as detailed as one really needs to follow the discussion. More shocking was my discovery that the footnotes were omitted from the "unabridged" audio.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Panther in the Basement
(Amos Oz, 3 cassettes)
Written in 1994, this novelistic memoir of life in Israel in its last days as a British protectorate, touches on themes of loyalty, intrigue, and the drive for independence.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

IDEO: Masters of Innovation
(Jeremy Myerson, 160 pp)
This is a very pro-IDEO publication with interesting images documenting the stages of design involved in building cool and occasionally useful items. The process is amazingly fertile and the company is shown to be nearly omnivorous in their interests.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Heir to the Glimmering World
(Cynthia Ozick, unabridged, stopped after 6 out of 9 cassettes)
Ozick's brilliance comes through in her smooth integration of ideas, history, and crazed family characters. I stopped before finishing, because I ran out of interest. The German refugee family, with a mother who'd collaborated with Erwin Schrodinger, and a father who studies the Karaites (a Jewish sect that rejected the rabbinic tradition). The Karaites, a fundamentalist strain, earned the father sponsorship by a Quaker college, owing to their misunderstanding the . I never quite grasped how the Karaitic beliefs fit into the design of the novel, but since Cynthia Ozick crafted this tale, there must be a deep rationale.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Kinds of Minds: Towards an Understanding of Consciousness (Science Masters Series)
(Dan Dennett, 3 hours)
A lucid tour of the ideas swarming about consciousness. As a fine answer to Nagel's famous question, What is it like to be a bat?, Dennett asks, What is it like to tie your shoe laces, or drive home on autopilot? By posing the questions in fresh ways, he makes a strong case that there are some questions that don't have answers at all.

Friday, August 04, 2006

This Craft of Verse
(Jorge Luis Borges, 4 CDs)
This artefact of Borges' 1968 Norton lectures retains some interest simply due to the fact that it captures the voice of the blind storyteller. I actually had a chance to hear Borges speak at my college, when he was whipping around the world trying to lobby for a Nobel. In these lectures, the ideas never seem too profound, nor do the jokes seem hilarious. But the time passes painlessly, and the occasion provides Borges with a chance to review the vast library of quotes that floated inside his mind.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

(Philip Roth, unabridged, 4 CDs)
I've been listening to this, off and on, throughout the summer. I liked this more than *The Dying Animal*, another novella that Roth wrote on a single sustained point. The perseveration on death suits a man after 70. I don't really connect to that anxiety, since we have our whole lives to acclimate to the fact that we are going to die. The other aspect of Roth's anxiety that eludes me is his absolute and utter concentration on sexual satisfaction, as the summum bonum.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood
(Kate Simon, unabridged, 5 cassettes)
A real life story, far uptown from Henry Roth's *Call it sleep*, but in the same era, since Kate Simon came to America at the age of 4, and grew up in the Bronx before WWI. One thread of the story is a disturbing echo of Roth's life story, namely, the prevalence of sexual exploitation of the young girl, by her uncle, as well as older neighbors. She describes everything with frank and direct language, and evokes a world of complex emotions without a spec of sentimentality.